NPR's All Things Considered

UN Says Afghan Opium Production Down

According to a new United Nations report, Opium cultivation is down 22 percent in Afghanistan. Vanda Felbab-Brown joined National Public Radio to discuss why the significance of these numbers should not be overestimated and to offer insight into the new counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan.

NOAH ADAMS, host: Opium is the cash crop in Afghanistan. And according to a new United Nations report, the bottom is starting to fall out of the Afghan opium market. Cultivation is down 22 percent, prices are at a 10-year low. Vanda Felbab-Brown is a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She's been studying the illicit opium economy in many countries, including Afghanistan. She last traveled there in April. What do you make of the situation, these numbers?

VANDA FELBAB-BROWN: The numbers are good but I would not overestimate their significance. In some ways we're chasing the false statistic. We keep looking at the level of cultivation, where the real metric that we should be focusing on is whether Afghan's dependant on opium poppy cultivation of alternative livelihood. And I would proceed that on the latter part of the story is much less positive than the celebrated foreign cultivation or in opium production.

ADAMS: You're talking about alternative livelihoods, other things to grow, other ways to make money.

FELBAB-BROWN: Absolutely where the rural alternative livelihoods in farming or off farm in the cities. And in fact what we have been seeing on these legal livelihoods are negative trends, constrictions of the market rather than expansion. And this reason why I'm very skeptical that the so-called achievements can really be sustainable because many people still depend on opium. Moreover, the major reason why opium production has fell is just the tremendous over-production that we've seen. For several years now, the level of cultivation and opium production has been several times higher than the total global estimate in markets for opiates. So it was just a matter of time before it would start falling.

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